I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Counselor (2013)

The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s much-anticipated screen-writing debut paints an elusive, eccentric, exquisitely rendered picture of poetic pain. Filled with bizarre, bone-grinding violence, twisted characters, confusion and moral compromise, Ridley Scott’s movie becomes a sodden, sordid cautionary tale of good and—mostly—evil. If you were looking forward to the crime thriller—more Tony than Ridley—the film’s trailer seems bent on promoting, The Counselor is not it.

Michael Fassbender heads a burning hot all-star cast, all outshined, hover, by the pulpy, lyrical, hardboiled and hell-bound script, a foray into the mesmerizing and merciless milieu of corrosive drug trade on the American-Mexican border—a barrier as moral as it is geographical for much of American fiction. McCarthy and Scott enter a closed, dangerous, elite world, devoid of any ordinary people to act as gateways or guides for the audience or to remind us of a reality beyond the brutal one of the cartel.

 The titular Counselor (Fassbender), known by no other name, just wants a simple, sexy happily ever after with Laura (Penelope Cruz). The first scene captures the characters murmuring sweet, dirty nothings to each other in the radiant intimacy of a softly lit cocoon of pure white sheets. “I intend to love you until I die,” he tells her. “Me first,” she insists. Hurtling forward swiftly, hopscotching from place to place and trusting the viewers to fill in the blanks, the decidedly darker and endlessly more disturbing rest of the film is spent heeding the characters’ doomed flirtation with fate.

Generally a by-the-book kind of lawyer, Fassbender’s character—just this once—wants to get in on a very big upcoming drug deal with his client Reiner (played with scenery-chewing aplomb and abandon by Javier Bardem), who enjoys a lurid, lavish lifestyle with Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a walking, talking case of foreshadowing and metaphor. “Counselor, I always thought a law degree was a license to steal,” Reiner tells his lawyer. “And you, for one, haven’t really capitalized on it.” It’s never too late to start.

The Counselor luxuriates in presenting these bright, colorful, wealthy individuals, who inhabit a dazzling, dizzying delirium of high-class cars, clothes, and houses which is both sumptuous and sickening. “You think you can live in this world and not be a part of it?” Brad Pitt's bemused middleman asks. Think again.

These people live to hunt and hunt to kill. Diaz’s fierce and forceful femme fatale, sporting a severe asymmetrical haircut, silver fingernails, a gold tooth and a ring with a rock the size of an apple, is possibly the second best thing about The Counselor (after the script),  deadlier and much less tame than her pet cheetahs, whose spots she has tattooed on her own body.

The thing about earthly demise and moral damnation—at least from what the movies teach us— is that you always have a choice. After repeated, original and ornate, warnings, Fassbender’s lawyer makes the wrong one, a deal whose Faustian contract will be signed and honored in blood. Early on, Reiner asks the Counselor if he knows what a bolito is and then describes it as a self-powered, virtually unstoppable-once-activated device extremely effective at separating heads from bodies within seconds—you know you’re going to see this thing, the mother of all Chekhov guns, and, no, it’s not the only decapitation-by-wire in the movie. 

The forces of unforgiving retribution gather and the blood tides rise, and, for anyone acquainted with Pulitzer Prize winner McCarthy’s work, the question is not if darkness will overtake everything and everyone, but when. The violence—sentiment-free, systematic, almost surgical—comes as no surprise. What’s surprising is how long it takes to arrive, each second of delay amplifying the dread.

And if you thought McCarthy’s world couldn’t get any darker, consider the fact that Fassbender’s character is imperiled specifically because he did a good deed, not because of his involvement with Reiner. Early in the movie, he bails a young man out of prison as a favor to his mother (Rosie Perez), without knowing of his connections to the drug business. The Counselor will soon realize his mistake, but, as he is reminded at a particularly desperate intersection of circumstances, “The world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made.”

The plot is at once essential and incidental. The narrative, a story of a man boarding a downward train—or a trolley ride in which the last stop is the cemetery, as Walter Neff puts it in Double Indemnity—is, perhaps, overly familiar, but it is repeated again and again specifically because it is speaks to something enduring in our character, a truth that never burns out.

McCarthy dips his pen deeply into the shadow-stricken world of noir, in which nothing is certain and right and wrong shift before your eyes, and any man will damn himself if the price is right. The Counselor wants to enter a dirty, demented world and walk away clean and sane. In the tradition of the best noir heroes, he will become increasingly soiled and sweaty as the spider web ensnaring him gradually tightens its stifling grip.

In its droning, dense dialogues and heightened, heavily stylized monologues, filled with jokes, archaic words, odd cadences and terrifying anecdotes, The Counselor proves itself supremely, self-consciously mindful of its own literary and pop cultural regard and references. Elevated, eloquent words are placed incongruously in the mouths of some deeply disreputable figures, notably Pitt’s calculated, in-control—or so he’d like to think—philosophic cowboy. The film abounds in poetically phrased but realistically dubious lines like “truth has no temperature,” uttered by Malkina when accused of coldness in her words.

Sexy and sleek, Scott’s seductive spin in the dark side of American storytelling casts its dark, delicious spell. In his review, Roger Ebert called the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, based on McCarthy’s novel, a “masterful evocation of time, place, character, moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature and fate.” That film was, indeed, perfect. I didn’t like it. At the time, I thought it was exaggeratedly, unnecessarily dark and stylized; I have come to realize it wasn’t dark and stylized enough. The Counselor doesn’t evoke time, place, character, moral choices, immoral certainties, human nature and fate as much as create its own wicked, warped version of them as seen through the lens of other, countless works of film and fiction. It goes that extra length into absurdity and nihilism that No Country for Old Men simply hinted at. In comparison, it is a deeply imperfect movie. I loved it.

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